Peter Kellner writes an introduction to the latest YouGov-Cambridge Report on 'Energy, Politics and the Consumer'
Something odd happened last autumn. A modest policy announcement, initially dismissed by its critics as a trivial gimmick, caught the public imagination and dominated politics at Westminster for some weeks.
Even Ed Miliband, the author of the proposal (to freeze gas and electricity prices for seventeen months if Labour wins next year’s general election), was surprised at the impact of his announcement. It gave him, and his party, a lift in their poll ratings. The Conservatives were certainly caught off-guard. Their initial reaction – that this was a return to Labour’s bad old left-wing ways, and demonstrated that Miliband did not understand the world of business – lasted barely twenty-four hours. An early YouGov poll showed that Miliband’s pledge had struck a chord with voters. Soon the two coalition parties were racing to catch up, with their own ideas for keeping down home energy bills.
This YouGov-Cambridge research drills down into voters’ attitudes. The pages that follow provide a detailed analysis of what we found. Together, the results help to explain the potency of energy as one of the hottest issues in British politics as we head towards next year’s general election. Put simply, our gas and electricity bills touch four of the most fundamental questions facing Britain today: can the cost of living be kept down; does big business work the interests of consumers; can politicians be trusted to care more for our interests than their own; and what, if anything, should we do to combat climate change?
In some ways, energy companies have reason to feel hard done by. They are not really responsible for the public doubts that have given rise to these questions. The main causes of these doubts are, in turn, the financial crisis and the need to curb government borrowing, which has depressed living standards; the behaviour of the big banks in sparking the crisis in 2008; the revelations about MPs’ expenses; and the cumulative impact of carbon emissions in recent decades.
However, even if the energy companies are to some extent scapegoats for failings that they did not cause, they have harmed their cause by giving millions of voters the impression that they are as rapacious and out of touch as any banker or expense-fiddling MP. At least, that is what voters think. Perhaps our most telling finding is that energy companies are now even more unpopular than banks. Maybe the energy companies must change their ways. Maybe they need to explain themselves far better. Maybe they need to do both. As ever, surveys measure perceptions, and perceptions do not always match reality. But whatever the root cause of their unpopularity, the big energy companies have a huge task if they are to revive their reputation.
What, then, should be done? Our survey contains a number of pointers. For example, it finds that most people put a higher priority on keeping their fuel bills down than fighting climate change. For those who think that politicians should simply do what a majority of voters think at any given moment, then the message is clear: do whatever it takes to freeze or, even better, reduce energy bills, and ignore the consequences for our children and grandchildren.
To do that, however, would be for politicians to abdicate their responsibility. We live in a representative democracy. MPs should decide what’s right, not simply do what’s popular. A better approach is to take the time to study the concerns laid bare in this survey, do what makes economic and environmental sense to meet those concerns, and work to secure people’s understanding and support when events (such as a spike in international energy prices) conspire to make life harder.
These days, that is harder said than done. We generally accept nasty-tasting medicine only from people we trust. If politicians and business leaders commanded as much respect as family doctors, then today’s gas and electricity prices would not be such a commercial and political minefield.
Which leads us to the real lesson from our research. Tougher government action, smarter regulation, a more competitive market, more transparent companies, help for older people and poorer families: the agenda for action is substantial, and the choices are not easy. But even if every bit of the agenda leads to sensible action, it won’t be enough. Ministers and company executives – and those who aspire to run our government and leading businesses in years to come – need to show that they are honest, intelligent, fair-minded and in touch with their voters and customers.
Yes, new policies and practices are needed; but so are new values – or, perhaps, the rediscovery of those values that have always been required by societies that seek to promote both economic success and social benefit.